Revisiting old posts: Skellig versus Oliver Twist. Skellig and Oliver Twist.

POST WRITTEN 18TH APRIL 2020

Another interesting debate happened last night about the teaching of Skellig versus the teaching of Oliver Twist and one having more cultural capital than the other.  Actually, I try to avoid getting into these debates now because I find them so draining but…one tweeter made a comment and used the word ‘value’ and this is where the discussion, I feel, should have gone.

Do the texts we choose have value?  That is the question we should be asking and, in my opinion, and my opinion only (knowing many will disagree with me), there can be many reasons why a text can be considered valuable.

What makes a text valuable?

  • Cultural capital
  • Its historical importance
  • The ideas and concepts being conveyed
  • The text’s use of vocabulary and exposure to new words
  • The text’s use of sentences structures
  • A particular narrative technique that is delightful and interesting
  • Etc etc

So in fact, texts can be valuable for a plethora of reasons and it does no good to dismiss one choice over another. In fact, both Skellig and Oliver Twist have value.

The truth is that we should be exposing our pupils to all manner of texts.

It is not enough, I’m sorry, to offer pupils a dead white man curriculum.  It is not enough.  You are not only confining them to a particular narrative but also a particular time period.  Pupils need to be exposed to different trains of thought, different perspectives, different cultures, different communities etc if they are to have a wider grasp of the world in which they currently exist.

Now some will argue that it is our moral imperative to offer pupils the best of what has been thought and said to level the playing field, especially for our most disadvantaged pupils.  Firstly, the best that has been thought and said hasn’t just come from the white man.  Secondly, as someone who has worked in a number of incredibly disadvantaged schools – for the majority of my career, in fact – and now works in a fee paying international school….what distinguishes the two groups of pupils goes beyond exposing pupils to the ‘canon’.

The differences lie in how education is viewed, how hard pupils work (with and without parental support, which is a factor) and above all else, from my experience, how articulate pupils are.  The main difference between the least disadvantaged and the most disadvantaged, again from my experience, is their confidence to have an opinion, articulate that opinion and discuss that opinion intelligently.

And yes, of course, pupils need to have knowledge in order to express thoughts and articulate ideas but that knowledge can come from a plethora of places and actually pupils need to have both a knowledge of the past and the present if what they say is to have any relevance at all.

We spend so much time thinking about our text choices and arguing about whether they are intellectual enough or rich in cultural capital enough that we are forgetting far more important things for our pupils’ growth and success further on down the line.

What we need to do actually is create voracious readers.  Pupils who read and read and read some more.  Pupils who will read Skellig and Oliver Twist and Wonder and The Diary of Anne Frank and Frankenstein and I Am Malala.  Because the more our pupils read, the more knowledge of the world they are exposed to.  We want to create those pupils who will pick up books because something has piqued their interest, because they are invested in the world in which they live, because they simply want to immerse themselves in a good story.

The pupils who don’t need a reminder to read…because they will be the people who succeed in life.

When thinking about our curriculum, we need to think more about our exposure to a range of texts to heighten our engagement with experiences offered through reading.  We also need to consider the wider values texts can hold – especially, I would argue with regard to concepts and ideas – and then we must ensure that our text choices are representative of the incredibly diverse world in which we exist.  The more exposure we give pupils, the greater knowledge and understanding of the world they will have and the more they will contribute to society as decent human beings in the future.

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